Popper 2: Critique of Marxism and Incrementalism

In a previous blog, I reviewed Karl Popper’s critique of Plato and Hegel, which we might call his “critique of idealistic historicism.” In this blog, I deal with his critique of Marx, which we might call his “critique of dialectical materialistic historicism.” As Popper analyzes Plato, Hegel, and Marx, he engages in a sustained critique of their respective “historicisms,” which means their shared tendency to suppose that there are “laws of history” or “forces of history” that determine national and personal destiny, as opposed to human history being determined by the concrete choices made by human beings. Popper regards their work as essentially authoritarian, leading to brutal and degrading regimes. Against the alleged historicism of these figures, Popper defends the importance of human decision-making and human action in creating history. In his view, history is “open.” This openness argues for an open society structured in such a way as to allow the maximum degree of freedom for individuals to choose their future rationally.

Critique of Historical Determinism

In Popper’s view, historical determinism refers to any theoretical understanding that human history can be predetermined by any set of ideas, material, idealistic, religious, or otherwise. Plato and Hegel represented an idealistic understanding. Marx represents a materialistic understanding. For Marx, the clue to human political history consists of socio-economic forces operating in human history. [1] According to Popper, Marx’s view is based on a kind of institutionalist view:

Against the doctrine of psychologism, the defenders of an autonomous sociology can advance institutionalist views. They can point out, first of all, that no action can ever be explained, by motive alone; if motives (or any other psychological or behavioral concepts) are to be used in the explanation, then they must be supplemented by reference to the general situation, and especially to the environment. In the case of human actions, this environment is very largely of a social nature; those are actions cannot be explained that reference to our social environment, to social institutions, and their manner of functioning. [2]

This view can be contrasted with a psychological view of human history, a view Popper believes was held by John Stewart Mill, the greatest of the Utilitarian thinkers. In the psychological view of history, all human actions and human society flow from human nature itself and are, in the end, reducible to human nature and its characteristics. [3] This view, has a long history in Western thought; for example, it is evident in Plato’s view that the right order of society is found when society’s order conforms to the right ordering of the human soul, mind, body, and spirit. It is unsurprising that Popper, who rejects Plato, also rejects the notion that human society in some way is to reflect human personality.

Hegel held that ideas are the motivating force behind history. Marx believes that economic forces are the fundamental driving forces behind human history, and these forces determine the kinds of ideas that are held at any given moment. Ideas are, therefore, a secondary “epiphenomena” created by material forces. Popper agrees with this analysis in a limited way. He agrees that material forces are primary. He agrees that economic forces are important and fundamental in some way but disagrees with the kind of “economic fundamentalism” that Marx embraced. [4]

However, unlike Marx, whose theories required a socialist revolution in the material world, Popper believes in the ability of sound ideas to influence and cause dramatic and positive change in society and social institutions. [5] Popper accepts, with qualification, Marx’s emphasis on class struggle but denies that it is the sole force in human history. In particular, Popper rejects the notion that human history is faced with a choice between capitalism and socialism. The development of modern Western social democracy refutes Marx’s prediction of a dramatic choice between only two alternative forms of social organization. [6]

Limits on Revolutionary Violence

Popper rejects the modern fascination with power as the source of political life and evolution. Hegel, for example, saw war as the fundamental force in history. This notion resulted in two destructive world wars. Marx substitutes class conflict and economic struggle as the fundamental sources of power that propel history. [7] The result was the devastatingly harmful revolutions seen in Russia, China, and other places during the 20th Century.

Popper rejects not just the inevitability of violent revolution but also the general desirability of revolutionary violence. He views this aspect of Marxism as its most harmful contribution to political theory, a conclusion that the sufferings of the 20th Century bear out in practice. [8] In Popper’s view, revolutionary violence, which parts of ancient and Christian thought permit, must be directed towards the overthrowing of a totalitarian state and its replacement with democratic institutions. Beyond this, only the defense of democratic institutions can justify violence. [9]

In condemning Marxism and its violent ideology, Popper speaks words of continuing importance today:

I do not believe that we should ever attempt to achieve more than that (ie, democratic institutions) by violent means. For I believe that such an attempt would involve the risk of destroying all prospects of reasonable reform. The prolonged use of violence may lead in the end to the loss of freedom, since it is liable to bring about, not a dispassionate rule of reason, but the rule of the strongman. A violent revolution which tries to attempt more than the destruction of tyranny, is at least as likely to bring about another tyranny, as it is likely to achieve its real aims. [10]

In recent years, we have seen the danger of violence as a chosen instrument of political change and the dysfunctional consequences it breeds. The antics of “revolutionary groups” right and left have played a significant part in weakening our social fabric and institutions. interestingly, some of these groups have been financed by those who claim to follow Popper’s ideas.

Critique of Marx as a False Prophet

In The Open Society and its Enemies, Popper classifies Marx as a false prophet:

…Marx was, I believe, a false, prophet. He was a prophet of the course of history, and his prophecies did not come true; but this is not my main accusation. It is much more important that he misled scores of intelligent people into believing that historical prophecy is the scientific way of approaching social problems. Marx is responsible for the devastating influence of the historicist method of thought within the ranks of those who wish to advance the cause of the open society. [11]

This observation of Popper is crucial in understanding the development of critical theory and Marxist-inspired political thought since World War II. While others, such as the members of the Frankfort School and adherents of critical theory, took a different view, Popper’s notion was that the events of the 20th Century had proven Marx wrong in his predictions and cast doubt upon the viability of his theories.

Before the Russian Revolution, European intellectuals were massively influenced by Marx and dialectical materialism. Many expected the cataclysmic end to capitalism and the establishment of communist states in Europe. Initially, what transpired in Russia after the revolution of 1917 was the construction of a totalitarian terror state, the furthest thing from what intellectuals expected. Secondly, after the First World War, the expected Communist revolution did not occur. Germany, in particular, rejected a communist-style revolution and attempted a liberal democracy. This attempt failed and ended in the terror of the Nazi regime and the destruction of Germany in the Second World War. After the war, Germany went back to a social democratic polity. Both these failures cast doubt upon Marx’s analysis of history.

Marx’s critique of capitalism was based upon his belief that it results in (i) an increase in productivity that (ii) concentrates wealth in fewer and fewer hands, with (iii) the final result the workers revolt against their slavery and replace the capitalist system with a communist society in which there is only one class. Popper does not believe that this analysis can be correct, for the issue of class is not an economic issue. [12] Every society has classes, including communist societies. Furthermore, Marx assumes that there can only be one class in the future evolution of society. In reality, we cannot know that this is true, nor can we know the truth or falsity of any number of potential ends to capitalism. There are many possibilities. [13]

In fact, from the standpoint of the early 21st Century, we can know that Marx was wrong in his analysis. The kind of Laisse-faire capitalism experienced in the 19th century has been replaced everywhere by some form of social democracy in which various social welfare programs ameliorate and soften the impact of competition and the accumulation of wealth by some. [14] In fact, the working classes instead of living in endless misery were able in places like the United States, Germany, South Korea, and Japan to attain the highest standard of living ever achieved in their own society or any other societies in human history.

Marx’s Faulty Critique of the Legal and Social System

Given Marxist materialism and its emphasis on class conflict, Marx was bound to resist the idea that persuasion, logical argumentation, legal change, and similar alterations of a particular society were likely to create social peace. Instead, Marx advocated a revolutionary ideology that undermines the rule of law. [15] As mentioned in an earlier blog when discussing Marx, his analysis of society was profoundly affected by his own social location, particularly the state of the industrial revolution during his time. There’s no question but that, immediately following the Industrial Revolution, the condition of the working class was desperate and society was being governed by a set of laws and principles at odds with ameliorating the suffering of human beings trapped in inhuman working conditions. Political institutions were slow to adapt to the changes required in law and social policy. Popper gives many important and sobering examples in his analysis of Marx and his thought. [16]

Popper believes that this feature of Marxism constitutes its fatal flaw. Marx’s disparagement of the potential of political power to overcome economic forces was proven false by the immense achievements of social democracy as it slowly but surely overcame the flaws of laisse-faire capitalism with a series of actions related to working hours, conditions, various forms of social insurance, old age protection and a host of achievements. [17]

Popper’s Pragmatic Incrementalism

Popper’s opposition to historicism is fundamental to his antipathy towards utopian social engineering (Marxian or otherwise). He opposes vast and unverifiable attempts to fundamentally restructure society based on the theoretical ideas of experts and the resultant social planning. In his view, such programs are fundamentally irrational and impossible since scientifically testing such plans is pragmatically impossible. “When the planners’ actions fail—as Popper thinks is inevitably the case with human interventions in society—to achieve their predicted results, they have no method for determining what went wrong with their plan. This lack of testability, in turn, means there is no way for the utopian engineers to improve their plans.” [18] This insight explains the continued failure under Socialist and Communist regimes of all kinds of “five-year” and other plans. Popper’s own policy preference is that of piecemeal reform, as he clearly states:

And it is a fact that my social theory (which favors gradual and piecemeal reform, reform controlled by a critical comparison between expected and achieved results) contrasts strongly with my theory of method, which happens to be a theory of scientific and intellectual revolutions. [19]

Interestingly, given the radical actions of some of his more famous followers, Popper is an incrementalist, believing that social change should be undertaken slowly, incrementally, and with sound reasoning behind modifications. Moreover, his scientific outlook and a strong sense of fallibility lend themselves to the view that social ideas, such as Marxism or Hegelianism, when proven false, should be abandoned and modified if proven limited.

Conclusion: Popper’s Critique of the Frankfort School

In 1960 and thereafter, Popper engaged in discussion with members of the Frankfort School (Adorno and Habermas). Popper was asked to begin the program with a set of theses, which he did in the form of twenty-seven propositions. The views were then discussed, but only a few in analytical detail. Later, the entire discussion was published giving Popper the first and last words:

I was and I still am very sorry about this. But having been invited to speak about ‘The Logic of the Social Sciences’ 1 did not go out of my way to attack Adorno and the ‘dialectical’ school of Frankfurt (Adorno, Horkheimer, Habermas, et al.) which I never regarded as important, unless perhaps from a political point of view, and in 1960 I was not even aware of the political influence of this school. Although today I should not hesitate to describe this influence by such terms as ‘irrationalist’ and ‘intelligence-destroying’, I could never take their methodology (whatever that may mean) seriously from either an intellectual or
a scholarly point of view. [20]

Popper views the so-called Frankfort School as irrational and philosophically undefendable. Yet, in his response to his critics, Popper speaks of the kind of revolution that he believes to be sustainable and valuable:

If the method of rational critical discussion should establish itself, then this should make the use of violence obsolete: critical reason is the only alternative to violence so far discovered. It seems to me clear that it is the obvious duty of all intellectuals to work for this revolution-for the replacement of the eliminative function of violence by the eliminative function of rational criticism. But in order to work for this end, one has to train ones-self constantly to write and to speak in clear and simple language. Every thought should be formulated as clearly and simply as possible. This can only be achieved by hard work. [21]

I cannot say if I will do another week on Popper. The Open Society and its Enemies is a huge undertaking, with many important insights. Some of these insights are in areas not germane to the fundamental purpose of this series of blogs. On the other hand, it is impossible to summarize so vast an intellectual undertaking as Popper undertakes in The Open Society and its Enemies in only two installments.

In the end, I have been much enriched by reading Popper. He is not an easy writer to digest, nor is he necessarily consistent in a simplistic way. His analysis is penetrating, though sometimes polemic to a degree that distracts from his main points. Nevertheless, the attempt to follow his reasoning is productive.

Copyright 2023, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Karl Popper, The Open Society and its Enemies (Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994), 301.

[2] Id, at 302.

[3] Id, at 298-299.

[4] Id, at 317. In the last blog, I mentioned that Popper appears to be a materialist who views material forces as fundamental. However, he does not believe that ideas are unimportant, as will be seen. Popper’s work is relatively unimpacted by the developments in semiotics, information theory, and quantum physics that drive my analysis in other blogs.

[5] Id, at 319.

[6] Id, at 349, 357.

[7] Id, at 321.

[8] Id, at 359.

[9] Id, at 360.

[10] Id.

[11] Id, at 294

[12] Id, at 348.

[13] Id.

[14] Id, at 350-351.

[15] Id, at 327.

[16] Id, at 327-330.

[17] Id, at 334-335.

[18] “Karl Popper: Philosophy of Science: Methodology in the Social Sciences” in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, at https://iep.utm.edu/pop-sci/#H4 (downloaded April 21, 2023).

[19] Karl Popper “Reason or Revolution” in The Positivist Dispute in German Sociology: Adorno, Albert, Dhrendorf, Habermas, Pilot and Popper tr. Glyn Adey I David Frisby (London, ENG: Heiemann 1969, 1977), 291,

[20] Id, at 289.

[21] Id, at 292.

David Bohm: Wholeness and Fragmentation

Because of another project in which I am engaged in this week, I needed to jump ahead and deal with David Bohm this week. Next week, we return to The Open Society and Its Enemies.

Contemporary physicist and philosopher David Bohm (1917-1992) was deeply concerned with the condition of modern society and the absence of authentic dialogue among people. Bohm was born into a Jewish family in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. Educated in the United States, Bohm achieved a Ph.D. in physics from the University of California at Berkeley, worked on the Manhattan Project under theoretical physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, the “Father of the Atomic Bomb,” and taught briefly at Princeton. In 1951, having been investigated by the McCarthy Committee for alleged Communist activities, Bohm left the United States, living in South America, Israel, and Great Britain. While a graduate student, Bohm had an experience that later began the development of his unique view of the wholeness of the universe. He noticed that once electrons are placed in a plasma, they see us behaving like individual particles and start behaving as if they were part of a larger and interconnected whole. [1]

In 1951, he published a fundamental work on quantum physics, defending the traditional Copenhagen interpretation. While working on the book, however, he developed doubts and began developing his interpretation of quantum mechanics that would preserve causality. Then, as a result of his conversations with Einstein, he began to work on his own causal interpretation of quantum mechanics, today known as the Bohmian” or “Non-Variable Approach” to quantum physics. [2] Bohm’s approach to quantum physics assumes the existence of underlying, subtler levels of reality. [3] These underlying levels of reality are “implicate” in the perceived universe and “unfolded” in space and time through the evolutionary process in which the world is engaged.

Our Participatory, Relational, and Undivided Universe

Three aspects of quantum physics are important as they call into question the mechanistic interpretation of reality upon which the modern world largely relies:

  1. The quantum world is discontinuous. That is to say, energy travels in indivisible units, known as “quanta,” from which we take the term “quantum physics.” This quantization of light means that the world does not unfold smoothly or linearly.
  2. Fundamental entities, such as electrons, have incompatible characteristics. Sometimes they appear wave-like, and sometimes particle-like, a phenomenon known as “wave-particle duality.” In particular, the presence of an observer and the character of the observations impact whether fundamental entities take on wave-like or particle-like characteristics. In other words, the notion of an observer outside the observation is undermined.
  3. When fundamental entities come into a relationship with one another show, they become entangled in a non-local relationship, which appears to be a non-causal form of connection. Such entangled particles act in concert in violation of the principle that no signal can travel faster than the speed of light, which phenomenon is known as “quantum entanglement.” The phenomenon of “entanglement” signals an interconnected world not made up of separate entities or phenomena.

None of these principles are compatible with the modern, post-Enlightenment world’s notion of a universe that can be explained in a materialistic, mechanical way. [4]

Einstein’s theory of relativity began the process of questioning the validity of a mechanical interpretation of the universe. Relativity theory implies that no coherent concept of an independently existent particle is possible, neither one in which such a particle would be an extended body nor one in which it would be a dimensionless point. Basic assumptions underlying Newtonian physics were shown to be limited in their possible application to reality as a whole. [5] In other words, the world is deeply relational, not solely explainable as as the interaction of material particles.

Rather than the universe looking like a machine, a picture of the universe developed under relativity theory and quantum physics more conducive to the view that the universe is a process or organism. The universe appears to be one unbroken whole, composed of interrelated quantum fields. Particles are best described as localized ripples or pulses in these fields, ultimately forming an undivided universe’s material basis. [6]

The unfolding process of the universe is made up of matter, energy, and information. [7] Ultimately, the universe, as seen by Bohm, is filled with differing information levels that are gradually unfolding in space-time and is, therefore, meaningful on different levels of analysis. These differing levels of reality unfold as the universe develops. The explicit order we observe is an unfolding of an implicate order characterized by information and meaning which unfolds.

In Bohm’s view, all the apparently fragmented separate objects, entities, structures, and events we perceive in the visible or explicate world are projections originating from a deeper, implicate order of unbroken wholeness. [8] Bohm uses the analogy of a flowing stream:

On this stream, one may see an ever-changing pattern of vortices, ripples, waves, splashes, etc., which evidently have no independent existence as such. Rather, they are abstracted from the flowing movement, arising and vanishing in the total process of the flow. Such transitory subsistence as may be possessed by these abstracted forms implies only a relative independence or autonomy of behaviour, rather than absolutely independent existence as ultimate substances. [9]

Thus reality is a process or “flow-movement” of deeply interconnected events. [10]

A Meaningful Universe

Bohm’s work sees the universe as inherently meaningful, filled with information at all levels of reality of which we human beings have any form of conscious understanding. In other words, the physical universe is inherently meaningful. Mind and matter exist in one undivided whole. To communicate this insight, Bohm coined the term “soma-significant” to describe the universe’s information, bearing, and meaningful characteristic.

The term “soma-significant” also implies that the mental and physical aspects of reality are not fundamental:

The notion of soma-significance implies that soma parenthesis or the physical) and its significance parenthesis, which is mental) or not in any sense separately existent but rather they are two aspects to one overall reality. [11]

The fundamental information-bearing character of the universe is based upon a somatic order, an arrangement, connection, or organization of distinguished elements in a physical structure. [12] For Bohm, this does not imply any form of a mind-matter duality because there is fundamentally only one flow in the universe. The changes of meaning or changes in that flow and changes in meaning, but there is no distinction between mind and matter. The universe is one meaningful whole in which we human beings can analytically separate mind and matter. [13] The flow of the universe, its organic processes, is a flow of energy in which meaning is carried inward and outward between aspects of soma and significance, but they are not separate. [14]

The reciprocal flow of meaning in the universe means that soma-significance is complimented by its inverse, a sign-somatic relation, which Bohm denotes as “signa-significance.” That is to say that the information and signs that make up the universe at a fundamental level affect the physical universe since the two are not fundamentally separated. [15]Soma-significance implies that matter impacts mind. Signa-significance suggests the reverse, that any change of significance or meaning has physical consequences in the universe.

On a physical level, this relationship is apparent. For example, if I don’t get enough sleep, I find it difficult to reason or write anything complex the next day. This happened to me yesterday. At the same time, if I change my mind, it has consequences in the physical universe. Adopting a religious belief, a moral view, a political conviction, a fundamental understanding of the universe, or any other mental event impacts how a person exists, thinks about problems, acts, and responds to environmental stimuli. This, in turn, influences the entire physical universe since all things are interrelated.

Our Fragmented Social Reality

Bohm was deeply interested in and concerned about the condition of our society. A feature of modern, post-Enlightenment science that negatively impacts our society is the reductionism that characterizes modernity and modern science. Classical physics presupposed that all of reality could be explained by analysis of the world into its fundamental units, assumed to be material in nature. In Bohm’s view, this analytic side of human reason, taken to excess in our society, leads to a fragmented view of reality and ultimately a fragmented view of reality:

Thus art, science, technology, and human work in general, are divided up into specialties, each considered to be separate in essence from the others. Becoming dissatisfied with this state of affairs, men have set up further interdisciplinary subjects, which were intended to unite these specialties, but these new subjects have ultimately served mainly to add further separate fragments. Then, society as a whole has developed in such a way that it is broken up into separate nations and different religious, political, economic, racial groups, etc. Man’s natural environment has correspondingly been seen as an aggregate of separately existent parts to be exploited by different groups of people. Similarly each individual human being has been fragmented into a large number of separate and conflicting compartments, according to his different desires, aims, ambitions, loyalties, psychological characteristics, etc., to such an extent that it is generally accepted that some degree of neurosis is inevitable, while many individuals going beyond the ‘normal’ limits of fragmentation are classified as paranoid, schizoid, psychotic, etc. The notion that all these fragments or separately existence is evidently an illusion, and this solution cannot do other than lead to endless conflict and confusion. [16]

The result of fragmentation is a society that is neither physically nor mentally healthy for most people. The various conflicts, economic and social crises, environmental damage, and social decay our society experiences all flow from the reality of a society that has become excessively fragmented. In particular, the fragmentation of our social institutions has reached the point where it is difficult to maintain a coherent and functional society. Obviously, a different way of looking at the world needs to be developed, and Bohm believes that the implications of quantum physics are leading us to just such a way of looking at the world holistically.

Returning to soma-significance, this concept is essential because the process of information flow extends into the entire universe, including the human person:

You can see that ultimately, the soma-significant, and the signa-somatic process extends even into the environment. Meaning, thus can be conveyed from one person to another and back through sound waves, through gestures, carried by light, through books and newspapers, through telephone, radio, television, and so on, linking up the whole society, in one vast web of soma-significance and signa-somatic activity. You can say that society is this thing; this activity is what makes society. Without it, there would be no society. Therefore, communication is society. [17]

Our physical environment, the houses, cities, factories, farms, highways, and so on in which we live, are the physical result of the meanings these material objects have come to have for human beings, not just in the present but in the present and the past as well.[18] Our entire culture is impacted by the physical, mental, and moral results of the signa and soma-significant flows of meaning that make up human culture. These meanings also affect the physical universe, with implications for modern environmental theory and practice. Bohm goes on to say:

Going on from there, even relationships with nature, and with the cosmos flow out of what they mean to us. These meanings fundamentally affect our actions toward nature, and thus indirectly, the action of nature back on us is affected. Indeed, as far as we know it, and are aware of it, and can act on it, the whole of nature, including our civilization, which is evolved from nature, and is still a part of nature, is one movement that is both soma-significant and sigma-significant. [19]

From the lowest level of reality to the most sophisticated elements of human society, there is a continual flow of meaning and activity that profoundly impacts the character and quality of human life. Human beings are constantly making decisions, experiencing acts of will, and determining outcomes based on a web of significance, much of which can only be known tacitly at any given time. [20]

This version of reality as a flow of meaning profoundly impacts Bohm’s view of culture. Human culture, in all of its complexity and strata, at all the levels in which we humans create meanings, physical, social, spiritual, political, legal, economic, and otherwise, are essentially stratified flows of meaning. Where there are significant physical or mental impediments to the flow of meaning, for example, where conflict exists, there is a blockage of that flow and corresponding dysfunction:

One might, in fact, go so far as to say that, in the present state of society, and in the present mode of teaching science, which is a manifestation of this state of society, the kind of prejudice, in favor of a fragmentary self-world view is fostered and transmitted (to some extent, explicitly unconsciously, but mainly in an implicit and unconscious manner). As has been indicated, however, men who are guided by such a fragmentary self-world view, cannot in the long run, do other than to try in their actions to break themselves and the world into pieces, corresponding to the general mode of thinking. [21]

The process of dividing the universe conceptually beyond its realm of utility because of a reductive, pre-existing worldview that sees the world as physically divided results in the division and separation of human beings from themselves, nature, and one another. The results divide society into fragmented and hostile groups. [22] This kind of fragmentary thinking leads to social, political, economic, ecological, and other crises in both individuals and society as a whole. The result is a chaotic and meaningless conflict in which social and intellectual energy is wasted. [23]

Dialogue as Central to Overcoming Fragmentation

To overcome the dysfunction and fragmentation of modern society, a different approach needs to be adopted. To overcome the fragmentation of our society, its fundamental paradigm for understanding reality (atomistic materialism and individualism) and its fundamental view of how to change that reality (material power) need to be changed. The process of change involves communication in the form of dialogue. Creative transformation in which fragmentation is overcome can be achieved through dialogue.

In Bohm’s view, the Greek roots of this term illuminate its meaning. “Dia,” meaning “through,” and “logos,” meaning “reason.” Dialogue happens when two or more persons share meaning by exchanging views. As we learn from Peirce and Royce, a single person can have a dialogue internally. We experience this all the time.

Of course, there can be honest and dishonest attempts at dialogue. In honest dialogue, new understanding emerges as meaning is conveyed and differing points of view illuminate reality.[24]  For two people to enter into real dialogue, they commit to a mutual exchange of ideas and information to better understand reality. Authentic dialogue involves a flow of meaning. Those involved in the dialogue are caught up in a moving flow of information and thought that constitutes the dialogue. A dialogue implicitly seeks a truth that the parties are humble enough to know and requires sharing ideas, thoughts, and perspectives.

Dialogue is not mere discussion. “Discussion” has the same root as percussion or concussion. In a discussion, conflicting views are expressed with a view toward breaking up or breaking down the other’s argument. People try to win, debate points, and carry the day in a discussion. Discussion and debate can increase fragmentation. In genuine dialogue, by contrast, participants are trying to find new meanings and agreement with one another. [25] In the process, fragmentation, with all of its unfortunate results, can be overcome.

Participatory Thinking and Transcendental Ideals

Bohm approaches the search for knowledge as a scientist. As it is practiced, science involves a kind of continuing dialogue, or exchange of reasoning, as investigations are made, results and theories published, criticisms are leveled, and adjustments made. [26] This scientific way of reasoning continues (or should continue) to be used in practical activities, but in sensitive areas, such as religion and politics, it is difficult to achieve due to blockages, emotional, ideological, and otherwise. [27] These blockages inhibit communication and the flow of meaning, preventing new discovery and change. The result is the kind of pervasive fragmentation and conflict that characterizes modern society. This fragmentation can be overcome by a kind of participatory dialogue in which people share meanings with one another in an attempt to understand.[28]

The significance of transcendental ideals (or potentials) for political thought is that such potentials reveal themselves to a community under concrete circumstances in a provisional but appropriate way.  Each determination is provisionally valid in a specific context. There can be no permanent and unchanging specification of justice as an abstract concept but there can be contextually valid approximations. [29] Because of the inner relationships among people and institutional structures, every determination of justice in a specific context is relative to, and may be modified by, a new emerging context and future understandings. Thus, no determination of justice can be final or fixed but is part of the movement of society, toward a more comprehensive understanding of justice and social peace. [30]

These insights have profound consequences for our understanding not only of physical reality but also upon our understanding of the social reality in which we live. As Bohm says in more than one place, the fragmentation and conflict in society, which an outdated worldview promotes, is leading to a loss of social coherence and meaning and the decay of Western democratic institutions. In order to reverse these trends, a new way of seeing and responding to social reality is needed.

Copyright 2023, G. Christopher Scruggs, All RIghts Reserved

[1] David Pratt, “David Bohm and the Implicate Order” at https://www.theosophy-nw.org/theosnw/science/prat-boh.htm (downloaded April 12, 2023).

[2] Id.

[3] (David Bohm and F. David Peat, Science, Order & Creativity, Bantam Books, New York, 1987, p. 88.)

[4] David Bohm, “the Enfolding Unfolding Universe and Consciousness” (1980) in Lee Nichol, ed, The Essential David Bohm (London, ENG: Routledge, 2003), 82-83.

[5] Id, at 81.

[6] Id, at 82.

[7] Id, at 172.

[8] See David Peat, “David Bohm and the Implicate Order” in footnote one above. This section is deeply dependent upon his analysis.

[9] Wholeness and the Implicate Order, at 48.

[10] Id, at 11.

[11] “Soma- Significance and the Activity of Meaning” (1980) in The Essential David Bohm, 158.

[12] Id, at 161.

[13] Id, at 163.

[14] Id, at 164.

[15] Id, 163.

[16] David Bohm, Wholeness and the Implicate Order (London ENG: Routledge, 1980), 1-2.

[17] “Soma- Significance and the Activity of Meaning” (1980) in The Essential David Bohm, 165.

[18] Id, 165.

[19] Id.

[20] Id, 166.

[21] Wholeness and the Implicate Order, at 15.

[22] Id, 16.

[23] Id.

[24] David Bohm, On Dialogue (New York, NY: Routledge, 1996), 7. This section of the paper is based on this work. On Dialogue was published posthumously and is based upon his writings and speeches.

[25] Id.

[26] David Bohm, On Dialogue (London ENG & New York, NY: Routledge, 1996, 2004), 4.

[27] Id, at 5.

[28] Id.

[29] Wholeness and Implicate Order, at 151.

[30] Id, at 157

Popper 1: The Open Society and Its Enemies

When beginning this series of blogs on political philosophy and theology, until recently, I deliberately skipped the most important single work in the Western Canon, Plato’s Republic. I did this because of the importance of the Republic for the thought of Karl R. Popper and his magisterial work, The Open Society and Its Enemies. [1] Even those who do not fully agree with Popper’s critique of Plato find his work meaningful. It has become one of the most critical books defending Enlightenment liberal democracy in the 20th Century. As a result, it has supporters on the political spectrum’s left and right.

Karl Popper

Karl Popper was born in 1902 in Vienna, Austria, to a family of Jewish origin. He was educated and taught in Austria until 1937, when like so many intellectuals, he was forced to flee Nazi Germany and its influence. In 1928, he received a Ph.D. in Philosophy. His doctoral dissertation, On the Problem of Method in the Psychology of Thinking, concerned the psychology of scientific thought and discovery. Popper was initially a philosopher of science. During and after the Second World War, his thinking turned to political philosophy, culminating in this 1945 book, The Open Society and Its Enemies.

Popper focuses much of his book on a refutation of Plato, but more importantly, on a refutation of the historicism and determinism evident in Hegel and Marx. Many scholars consider Popper’s work to be a complete refutation of the very foundations of both Nazism and Marxism. In the case of Marxism, he definitively refuted its claim to scientific status and its claim to reveal the course of political and economic history. In his mind, Plato, Hegel, and Marx represent a kind of historical determinism and ethnic tribalism that resulted in, among other things, the Nazi German state and Russian Communist Marxism, with all the human suffering that resulted.

What is an Open Society?

At the root of Popper’s work is the notion that liberal democracy presupposes an open society, whereas the thought of Plato, Hegel, Marx, and others presupposes a closed society. So, what is an “open society”? According to Popper open society is one in which people enjoy the maximum amount of political, economic, equality, and personal freedom (as in a democracy) as possible. [2] Furthermore, open societies function based on individual merit, not social status, race, religion, etc.

To speak of an “open society” is to assume the existence of another kind of society that might be called “closed.” What, then, is a “closed society?” If an open society is one in which the accomplishments of people allow them to achieve on their merits, a closed society is one in which there are significant barriers to human freedom. Those barriers might be race (as in some cultures where there is considerable discrimination), social status (as in societies where there exists a powerful social hierarchy), religion (as in communities with a religious or irreligious test for public office), and other restrictions on human flourishing.

In The Open Society and its Enemies, Popper identifies one particular type of closed society, which he calls “tribal.” Greek society was essentially racist and tribal, with the various Greek city-states consisting of essentially one group of people sharing a common history and set of traditions. Jewish society was similarly tribal by this definition. Plato often seems to be defending the superiority of Greek ideas and social forms on essentially what we would call a tribal basis. In particular, Plato appears to be supporting an early form of Greek aristocracy, a form of government in which his family had flourished.

More recently, beginning with Hegel and culminating in the Third Reich, Germany developed a politics of “race and blood” that led, among other matters, to the holocaust and the enslavement of much of Europe. Hegel, in particular, is identified as the source of a kind of German tribalism that ended up in the glorification of the Master Race. Hegel thought that nations should be coextensive with a single people, which is the basis from which Hitler developed his notion that the Aryan Race should constitute a single nation in Europe, led by Germany. [3] For Popper, such ideas are the hallmark of a closed society.

What is Historicism?

The feature of Plato, Hegel, and Marx that Popper finds most horrible is their tendency to suppose that there are “laws of history” or “forces of history” that determine national and personal destiny, as opposed to human history being determined by the concrete choices made by people. For Popper, the work of Plato, Hegel, Marx, and their followers is essentially authoritarian, leading to brutal and degrading regimes. One need only look at Nazi Germany or the various Communist states to see an element of truth in his words.

Readers of this blog will note that I have critiqued various American political figures, left and right, for using the phrase “right side of history.” When we claim that our political beliefs are “on the right side of history” and our enemies are “on the wrong side of history,” we essentially claim that our enemies act contrary to historical forces that determine history. We are implying that our political foes are retrograde for not understanding this fact. Perhaps most distressing is that such phrases as “the wrong side of history” are prejudicial and enable the one who uses them to avoid the concrete defense of their political agenda.

To reject the notion of deterministic laws of history is not to deny the importance of history for a society. Nor does a rejection of historicism, by Popper’s definition, involve a denial of the obvious fact that history and historical situations limit and, to some degree, direct human action. Just to give one current example, the level of indebtedness of Western democracies does not determine their future, but it does restrict specific future outcomes.

What is rejected by Popper is the notion that human choices do not count, that somehow above and beyond human decisions, there is something else, laws of history or some kind of divine predestination, which laws or decrees render human choice unimportant or irrelevant. On the contrary, the availability and importance of human choice—and the moral responsibility that goes with such choice—are central to Popper’s defense of the open society.

Glorification of War and Struggle and the Closed Society

One of the most compelling features of The Open Society and its Enemies is how Popper shows Hegel and Marx to be modern exponents of the theories of Heraclitus and his glorification of war and struggle as the final arbiter of human history. Fundamentally, Marx and Hegel both have an amoral view of government and politics. Success matters in politics, and whatever policies a state adopts are just if successful. [4] The belief that politics is exempt from morality applies within and within states. Among states, despite the role of diplomacy and agreement, the final arbiter is success, and success equates to success in conflict, including war, in the accomplishments of the grand objects of the state. [5]

It does not take much imagination to see that this view translates into the excesses of the Nazi, Communist, and other regimes. Increasingly the Western democracies, as the Christian consensus that formed their societies disintegrates, this amoral (one is tempted to say immoral”) view of politics and diplomacy prevails. If one asks why certain political groups and politicians view it proper to use violence, state-sponsored and otherwise, to gain their domestic political objectives, one needs to look no further than the philosophies of Hegel and Marx.

The Search for the Great Man (or Woman)

Like Nietzsche, Hegel glorifies the Great Individual who creates a change, new, and successful political system or structure by sheer force of will. Lenin was the result of this kind of thinking transmitted via Marx. A great man (or woman) is one who expresses the spirit (or will) of their age and thus strides through history successfully in their endeavors. Such “world-historical figures” are the engine of the spirit of the age in achieving its ends. [6]

From ancient times to the modern age, the destiny of most “world-historical figures” has been to bring untold suffering upon the human race. A long line of such figures, from Alexander the Great to Napoleon the Modern Age, turn out to be little more than petty tyrants who, through skill and luck, for a time stride across the stage of history

The Importance of Piecemeal Social Engineering.

One implication of a desire for an Open Society is recognizing that grand projects are to be disfavored and piecemeal change is to be favored. This rejection of grand designs is a tough lesson to learn in the modern world, where we frequently glorify massive social programs, the Great Society, and the like while ignoring small changes to improve lives. Increasingly, it is disfavored by right and left groups impatient for massive social change. The results of this failure of such ambitions lie all around us.

 Practically, all societies are a mixture of open and closed, but some societies can be described as “open” and others as “closed.” In addition, all societies change over time, evolving new social institutions, cultural norms, and the like. Closed societies function so that an elite makes all such changes, be it members of an aristocracy, oligarchy, military junta, or members of a single authorized political party. In an open society, such changes are made by the free act of many individuals and groups piecemeal. In this sense, despite the alignment of adherents to the open society concept with radical leftist politics in America, the doctrine of Popper is essentially conservative in nature. He had seen the evils created by the Nazi and Russian regimes and the dangers of any form of totalitarianism.


Next week, the blog will focus almost entirely on Popper’s critique of Marx, who is both closer in time and more influential in current politics. This week has focused more on Hegel, whom Popper rejects in categorical terms. There are probably several reasons for this rejection. Most important is the connection Popper sees between the ideas of Hegel and the emergence of Naziism and the events of the Second World War, which was ongoing during the time his work was being written. Not so obvious is the likelihood that Popper is so violently opposed to Hegel because of his idealism, which is in fundamental opposition to Popper’s own materialistic view of human society, which makes him more open to Marx than to Hegel.

As a philosopher of science, Popper was familiar with Einstein’s theory of Relativity and one assumes somewhat familiar with Quantum theory. Interestingly, the implications of the latter do not seem to have penetrated his opposition to Hegel. One can expect too much of a philosopher, and it might well be too much to ask that Popper consider the implications of a non-material substratum to the visible universe on his ideas. I will take this up a bit at the end of next week. For now, it is enough to suggest that Popper defends a kind of Enlightenment program that is fundamentally impacted by a distinction between the human mind and inert matter—a distinction that may lead him astray in the end.

Copyright 2023, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Karl Popper, The Open Society and its Enemies (Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994).

[2] Id, at 262.

[3] Id, at 262.

[4] Id, at 277.

[5] Id, at 279.

[6] Id, at 283

Leadership and Good Friday

Where should we look for spiritual and moral principles to guide our actions? They are not to be found in the rules and practices of institutional decision-making. Leaders cannot find them by the simple calculus of “What is the rate of return on this investment?” or “How many votes will this bill cost?” Instead, moral and spiritual decision-making requires that leaders move our thought to a higher level—to the level of meaning and value. [1] When Isaiah describes the Suffering Servant, he sets a different standard for leaders. It is terrifying. Here is how he describes the Messiah to come:

He had no physical beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. Instead, he was despised and rejected by humankind, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. Like one from whom people hide their faces, he was despised, and we held him in low esteem. Yet, he took up our pain and bore our suffering, while all along, we considered him punished by God, stricken by him, and afflicted by his own failure. It was only later that we realized he was pierced for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; and the punishment that brought us peace was on him; by his wounds, we are healed (Isaiah 53:2-4, GCS)

The Leader as Servant

For Christians, leadership requires that we emulate the One who said that leadership within his kingdom was not about power, pride, or position but service (See Mark 10:35–45; Matthew 20:20–28; Luke 22:24–26). The Way of Jesus is the way of service in the spirit of self-giving love. The dilemma for Christ-Followers is how to discern and apply the wisdom of Christ and the Christian tradition in an ever-changing and often challenging environment. Something like a “Tao of Christ” helps leaders develop an attitude and approach that invokes the Spirit of Jesus and the spiritual resources needed to solve day-to-day problems.

In the Judeo-Christian tradition, the fool (unwise) and the wicked (those who habitually violate the moral law) act against the grain of the Cosmos, against the rational order of Creation, and against the moral order God embedded in human nature. The wise person faces this reality and lives according to reason and the moral law. This moral order is summarized in the Great Commandment to love God and others. The practical implication of the Law of Love is seen in the life of Jesus Christ.

Those who accept this ancient way of wisdom understand that scientific knowledge, faith, and moral insight are parts of a seamless web of created rationality binding the physical, moral, and intellectual universe together. Eugene Peterson captures this notion when he writes, “. . . God’s law is not something alien, imposed on us from without, but woven into the very fabric of our creation. There is something deep within . . . that echoes God’s yes and no, right and wrong” (Romans 2:14, Message).

Leaders and Practical Wisdom

It is important to reacquaint people, and especially leaders, with this older tradition, a tradition that sees moral inquiry and ethical decision-making as an attempt to bring human life to wholeness personally and socially. This wholeness is achieved as the rational moral nature of the universe is reflected in the lives of concrete human beings who are attempting to live wisely and well and human institutions. The wise life is not something we create by decision (as in existentialism and postmodernism). We discover the wise life by observation and meditation on reality in light of God’s revelation in Christ.

In a world where many people have lost confidence in the existence of truth, it is important for Christ-Followers to humbly make known the Gospel as communicating real truth about how the world is and its relation to its Creator. In a world where many people consider religion as something backward, it is important to remember that Christians have always believed in the search for truth in whatever form, for God is the author of all truth. In a world where many people think of Christians as captured by superstition, it is important for Christians to proclaim Jesus Christ and him crucified, not against the facts, but as a way to make sense of the human condition and God’s interaction with human beings. [2]

This has practical implications for Christians. Following Jesus is a discipline by which we consciously open our minds and hearts to the deep wisdom of God revealed in Christ. This is why Christians are called “Disciples.” If, as Christians believe, Jesus embodies the wisdom of God, then true wisdom, wherever found, deepens our understanding of Christ. TheTao Te Ching is full of this kind of wisdom. It contains an understanding of life that can deepen our Christian understanding of the riches and depth of God’s wisdom and help us live more authentically as Christians.

This is especially true for leaders, who must make wise and prudent decisions in managing affairs. In leading people and organizations, leaders must constantly search for the true, the beautiful, and the good. Furthermore, leaders must do this with the constant awareness of their failures, faults, limitations, and brokenness. This sense of limits and fallibility is often lacking in contemporary leadership, in business, in government, in private organizations, and unfortunately, in the church.

The Way of Deep Love

As the Apostles, New Testament writers, and early Christians meditated on the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, they came to understand Jesus as God in human form—embodied Divine Love. One of the earliest names for Christians was “those who belong to the ‘Way'” (Acts 9:2). Jesus showed his disciples both a way to fellowship with God and a way of life. The Beatitudes are a beautiful description of the Way of Christ. This Way involves serving and leading others with a gentle, other-centered, sacrificial love.

There is a technical word for God’s willingness to serve creation at its deepest point of need. The word is kenosis, which means “to empty.” It comes from the words of Paul:

Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death— even death on a cross! (Philippians 2:5-8, NIV).

In the older translations, the phrase “made himself nothing” (ekenosen) is translated as “emptied himself.” This is the classic testimony to God’s self-giving nature.

Christ reveals the limitless, vulnerable, self-giving love of God. In Christ, God served the greatest need of human beings and creation by emptying himself of overt power to redeem a fallen world. The message of the Cross is that God is the One who gives himself without limit, without restriction, without any holding back for the sake of his broken creation and his sinful people.[3]  This is what Christians mean when we say, “God is love” (1 John 4:8). The love of God patiently bears with us even as we presume upon the mercy of God. The love of God endures our sins, shortcomings, and brokenness as the Spirit works patiently and in love to redeem and restore.


Interestingly, Jesus is more than just the model for religious and non-profit leaders. The world needs leaders who model the humility, servanthood, wisdom, and love of Christ. While there are differences in personalities, capacities, etc., between leaders in the church and those in government, politics, business, and other areas, the fundamental requirements of practical wisdom and deep love for others remain the same. This Easter, we might remember that the King of Kings and Lord of Lords was a person of humility, servanthood, and hidden wisdom, willing to give himself for the world and us.

[1] This meditation is based upon sections of the Introduction to my book, Centered Leading, Centered Living: The Way of Light and Love for Christ-Followers rev. ed. (Booksurge, 2016).

[2] See, Lesslie Newbigin, Truth To Tell: The Gospel as Public Truth (Grand Rapids, MI & Geneva Switzerland: William B. Eerdmans and the World Council of Churches, 1991).

[3] See, W. H. Vanstone, Love’s Endeavor, Love’s Expense: the Response of Being to the Love of God (London, UK: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1977). See also John Polkinghorne, ed, The Work of Love: Creation as Kenosis (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans 2001) for a deep analysis of how creation reflects the One who is love and became love incarnate to redeem and restores his handiwork.